Fighting Over Fluoride in the '50s
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Fighting Over Fluoride in the ’50s

Cartoon, the Telegram, March 5, 1955.

Communist conspiracy. Poison worse than arsenic. Crime against God. Gross violation of civil liberties. Evil plot hatched by aluminum companies to dump waste. These were among the charges civic politicians heard when water fluoridation was debated in Metropolitan Toronto’s municipalities in 1955.
Another frequently cited demerit point back then was rehashed this week when KPMG mentioned fluoridation in the Core Services Review: a potential waste of taxpayer money. While movements to end fluoridation like Calgary, Kitchener, and other municipalities haven’t gained momentum (yet) in Toronto, and while the KPMG consultants note the possible detrimental effects on public health if city council decides the program is worth hacking, we’re already seeing fears from the “Fabulous Fifties” resurface.

While discussion about fluoridating city water to reduce tooth decay had occasionally reached the floor of Old City Hall, it wasn’t until 1955 that Toronto’s councillors voted on it. Or, more accurately, passed the buck—by an 11-8 vote on March 1, council recommended that the issue be passed to Metropolitan Toronto Council, who could organize a plebiscite on fluoridation. The debate leading to the vote went so deep into the night that when the decision was reached at 2:45 a.m. the Star observed that “the usually energetic pro- and anti-fluoridation groups greeted the decision with no demonstration. They appeared just too tired to get excited.”

Fluoridation opponent Dorothy Cureatz and various police officials in the hallway of (Old) City Hall. Photos by Peter Dunlop. The Telegram, March 3, 1955.

Among those observing the vote was zealous fluoridation opponent Dorothy Cureatz, who described herself as a “voluntary civic affairs observer” and a “fearless and God-fearing spinster.” Cureatz regularly handed out pamphlets and stickers bearing the motto “Let’s Keep Our Water Pure” at public meetings. Perhaps the apex of her protests came during a meeting of the City’s health committee on March 3, 1955. During the session, she was warned several times by meeting chair Philip Givens to keep quiet. When Cureatz demanded that Alderman Jean Newman shut up so that she could hear soft-spoken chief city medical official Dr. L.A. Pequegnat, Givens asked her to leave. Cureatz refused, so the police were called in. As a constable dragged her out by the arm, she yelled, “I have a right to hear the meeting.” In the hallway, she tried to break free while repeatedly crying, “I don’t want to leave.” She struggled with three police officers for five minutes as she attempted to sit on the floor, before finally departing the premises. Cureatz continued her battle to keep water pure (sometimes under the banner of the “Pure Water Universal Individual Plea”), even coming out against chlorination because it implied that people were drinking dead germs. As a perennially unsuccessful candidate for public office over the next two decades, anti-fluoridation was a key platform plank. When she died in 1995, her death notice in the Star noted that the always-smiling Cureatz was “well-known for her testimonials along the TTC and her evangelical messages outside of Honest Ed’s.”

General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) explains his views on fluoridation to British officer Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) in Dr. Strangelove.

While Stanley Kubrick played up General Jack D. Ripper’s anti-communist paranoia regarding fluoridation’s effects on his “precious bodily fluids” in Dr. Strangelove, the officer’s fears weren’t far removed from some of the deputations Metro Council heard. During a forum on April 4, 1955, A. Herridge of the Anti-Contamination League told councillors that poisonous fluoride was promoted by “powerful hidden forces” and that it was a devious method of Communist warfare to reduce the will of freedom-loving Canadians.
The session Herridge spoke at saw six deputations in favour of fluoridation and eight against. Some opponents, such as the Anti-Vaccination and Medical Liberty League of Canada (who believed that next to arsenic, fluoride was the most dangerous substance found in food), had names straight out of a satirist’s notebook. A taxpayer group claimed municipalities lacked the right to spend money on a program that would benefit few. A Christian Scientist representative believed that fluoridation was the first step toward state medicine. Proponents tried to ease the fears of opponents by listing numerous studies and testimonies of medical officials, and reflecting that similar paranoia greeted water chlorination and milk pasteurization.

Advertisements, (left) the Toronto Star, February 26, 1955, (right) the Toronto Star, March 3, 1955.

As the Metro Council vote approached, the controversy kept editorial page writers busy. The Globe and Mail had the most reservations, believing that adding fluoride was an individual choice—if anyone really wanted it, they could add tablets to their water or bring back fluoridated supplies from Brantford or Stratford. They encouraged more time to gather evidence on both sides of the debate. The Star and the Telegram were stridently pro-fluoridation. One Star editorial declared, “If fluoridation is rejected it will be a victory of fear and prejudice over common sense and professional knowledge. The public can win a victory for the children by taking a little time and trouble to get expert advice”. The Telegram published many editorials attacking those who couldn’t see the health benefits fluoridation would bring, taking particular glee in knocking the Globe and Mail for publishing pieces that hinted at Communist plots.

Headlines, the Toronto Star, May 18, 1955.

Despite fierce opposition from officials such as Forest Hill Reeve C.O. Bick (who would only accept fluoridation of school water systems, conveniently ignoring that children didn’t spend the entire day in a scholastic setting) and Scarborough Reeve Oliver Crockford (who felt medical officials were “a little overenthusiastic about this”), Metro Council voted 15-8 in favour of fluoridation on May 17, 1955. Metro Chairman Frederick Gardiner felt it was time to “stop looking for someone to take us off the hook.” Despite the vote, eight years passed before fluoridation began. Bick and Crockford threatened legal action, claiming Metro Toronto had no right to interfere in public health, which was the responsibility of the individual municipalities. Gardiner received anonymous threats of “dire consequences” if he continued to promote fluoridation. Efforts of anti-fluoridation crusaders like broadcaster/writer Gordon Sinclair helped delay implementation efforts. A plebiscite in 1962 barely settled the issue, as citizens split evenly on the issue (fluoridation won with 50.1 per cent of the vote).
While KPMG’s reference to fluoridation is just a suggestion, and despite assurances from Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34, Don Valley East) that fluoridation’s likely not on the chopping block, the fact that it was mentioned at all in the Core Services Review provides fuel for modern opponents to seek public forums for their misgivings. It also provides the opportunity to debate what effects on public health fluoridation has had over the past half-century, whether in civilized settings or in verbal jousts in online comment sections. If the city decided to cut fluoridation, we wonder how long it would take before somebody shoved their child’s dental bill in front of a councillor’s face.
Additional material from the May 3, 1955, and June 23, 1955, editions of the Globe and Mail, the March 1, 1955, March 3, 1955, April 4, 1955, April 25, 1955, and November 25, 1955, editions of the Toronto Star, the March 3, 1955, and May 17, 1955, editions of the Telegram, and the May 19, 1955, edition of the Willowdale Enterprise.